Whenever the Philadelphia Flyers’ brand is invoked, team supporters and even many people whose loyalty lies with other organizations use adjectives such as tough, passionate, fiercely competitive, self-confident, bold, pugnacious, team-oriented and proud of team tradition as defining traits of the last 50 years. Residents of the Delaware Valley also note the team’s strong bond and service to the community, often with no publicity attached to it.
Those same terms have been used to describe Flyers co-founder and longtime Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, who passed away on April 11, 2016 at age 83.
It is no coincidence. Over the years, the Flyers took on the same traits as the man who shaped the franchise.
Snider was an iconic figure in many different realms: sports ownership, the growth of the National Hockey after its expansion from six to today’s 30 teams, the business community and a wide array of philanthropy.
“Follow your gut. If you have an idea, take a chance. More often than not, the reward will be worth the risk,", Snider said in a speech to students at the University of Maryland, his alma mater, on September 29, 2015.
He was not born into wealth. Snider’s fortune came from his tireless work ethic, ability to recognize and differentiate between short-term and long-term opportunity. An entrepreneur at heart, Snider was willing to take risks when he believed strongly in something.
Snider did not place his trust in just anyone, but when someone earned his trust, he backed that person to the hilt. That was a big part of why Snider created enviable loyalty among most people who worked with and for him.
All successful people acquire adversaries as well as supporters and Snider was no exception. He was never one to duck a fight and he was a tough negotiator. Nevertheless, his admirers and trusted associates far outnumbered his enemies.
In ways that could not be faked – and behind closed doors as well as in public – Snider cared about three things above in all realms of his professional and philanthropic lives: opportunity, benefit and results.
Snider was not just owner and chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was the team’s staunchest fan, pouring his emotions into the team’s on-ice success. He was still just a working-middle-class kid at heart, and he felt a sense of loyalty to the team’s fans that went over and beyond just the profitability of the franchise.
For example, during the protracted period over which the Wells Fargo Center (then called CoreStates Center and, previously, Spectrum 2) was developed and built, Snider was vehement about insisting that the new arena be privately financed. He even turned down a lucrative out-of-state offer of two-thirds financing because he wanted to keep the team in Philadelphia proper.
When the arena opened and hosted the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, Snider walked around the concourse, greeting fans in person and asking for feedback on their first impressions of the new facility. Even in closed-door meetings, Snider put high priority on customer loyalty.
Formerly a Flyers player and then a coach before later returning and becoming general manager followed by club president, Paul Holmgren admired Snider’s devotion to the team while Holmgren was working at ice level. It was not until he became part of the front office, however, that Holmgren got a full sense of how passionate Snider was about the fans as well as the team.
“He first and foremost thought of the fans, when they were talking about ticket prices, or parking, or weather. Can our fans get to the game if we've got bad weather? What can we do to help out? Can we change the time of the game? Should we cancel the game? He's always thinking about our fans, and how we're going to make sure they're comfortable getting to the game, enjoy the experience of being at the game, and obviously winning as many times as we can at home,” Holmgren said.
Holmgren was also appreciative of the way that Snider willingly provided the resources the general manager and hockey operations staff needed to go about their jobs. Over the course of a half century in the NHL, Snider became quite educated about the game, but never felt that he knew more than his hockey people themselves. When it came time for decision making, he gave them freedom to do what they saw fit, even if the courage of their convictions differed from his own read on a situation.
“He let the hockey guys do their thing,” Holmgren said. “He'd question you. He might disagree with you. He might ask you some real tough questions: ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘What do you mean so-and-so is not doing this, or we can't do that. Why not?’ Then you get in a big debate with him about this. He was very good, and he listened well. He asked great questions.
“He was a great guy to bounce ideas off of, and he always had the best thing in mind for the Flyers. It was, ‘Whatever is best for the Flyers organization, that's what you should do.’”
Taking what he did well and growing it
Edward Malcolm Snider was born on January 6, 1933 in Washington, D.C., to parents of Russian Jewish immigrant backgrounds. His father, Sol, owned a small local grocery store, which grew over time into a supermarket and then a franchised chain.
“I was actually living with my mom and dad on top of my father’s grocery store in Washington, D.C. Slowly, but surely, he moved to another store which was a little bigger, then he acquired a supermarket and then he got two more supermarkets. I grew up in the grocery business and worked side-by-side with my dad, Sol C. Snider, for many, many years,” Snider recalled to Philadelphiaflyers.com in 2004.
The toughness for which he was noted as an adult was bred in him from childhood. When confronted with bullying and anti-Semitism as a youth, he fought back with his tormenters – with his bare fists, win or lose. Before long, he was left alone by the bullies to seek easier targets.
If that sounds a bit like the early development of the Philadelphia Flyers, once again, that is not just a coincidence. During the team’s beginning phases, the Flyers were a defensively sound team that relied heavily on its goaltending and sound two-way play. They were not, however, especially pugnacious relative to the norms of the era. The St. Louis Blues were.
Watching the Blues pulverize and intimidate the Flyers twice in the playoffs, including a brutal 1968 incident in which St. Louis’ ruffian Noel Picard blind-sided and viciously attacked small finesse forward Claude Laforge because he happened to be the closest bystander in a tussle between other players, Snider privately vowed that the team he owned would never again be pushed around in such fashion. That was the genesis of the Flyers assembling what became known as the Broad Street Bullies.
While he was never one to back down from a fight, Snider knew from a young age he wasn’t going to be an athlete when he grew up. That was not where his real abilities lay. Even a youth working with his parents in their grocery store, he had a head for numbers and entrepreneurial thoughts.
Snider attended the University of Maryland, graduating in 1955 at the age of 22. He became a certified public accountant (CPA), earning $5,000 a year. It was a start, but he immediately realized that he did not want to spend his life as a CPA.
On his first and only assignment, Snider kept the books for a gasoline station owner, who was earning $25,000 a year. Snider completed the task but spent the whole time thinking he could do a better job of running his client’s business profitably than the client himself.
“That’s when I realized that I could not be an accountant,” Snider said. “I would rather own the gas station.”
During Ed’s childhood, Sol Snider often told his son, “If you don’t anything, you can’t do anything wrong.” These were not literal words of advice; rather, it was encouragement to follow his dreams. Years later, the Flyers hired a coach named Fred Shero who espoused the same philosophy: “To avoid criticism is easy: Say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
Snider decided to take his first real entrepreneurial risk. He left the security of an accounting job and became a partner in Edge Ltd., a record distribution company. Snider was not exceptionally knowledgeable about the music business but he recognized an opportunity.
Snider and a friend named George Lilienfield found out there was a large local supply of unsold and overstocked phonograph records they could buy wholesale at a steeply discounted price simply to get them out of storage.
“They were in boxes in a warehouse,” Snider recalled to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986. “Recent records that just hadn't sold as expected.”
It also turned out that the stock was even larger than described: about 500,000 records in pristine condition. Snider and Lilienfield pooled and borrowed enough money to buy the boxes. For distribution, Edge sold the records off racks in Sol Snider’s stores and then convinced other grocery, discount and drug stores in the area.
In 1964, after selling the record business, Snider received an offer he could not refuse. He relocated from Washington to Philadelphia and, for two years, became the vice president of the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise. His real ambitions, however, still were in ownership. Snider purchased a very small share of Eagles ownership.
Snider was not a hockey fan growing up. He’d never seen a game much less donned hockey gear and skated. But he became enthralled by the sport when he was finally introduced to it and, furthermore, saw a business opportunity when he attended a basketball game in Boston and saw fans lined up for advanced-sale tickets to a Boston Bruins game.
When Snider learned that the National Hockey League planned to expand from six to as many as 12 teams, he eagerly became part of a group of franchise bidders doing business as Philadelphia Hockey Club, Inc.
During the bidding process, the Philadelphia group was told in no uncertain terms that having a first-rate modern rink was a prerequisite for any franchise to gain approval from the NHL Expansion Committee. No such facility existed in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Arena in West Philly, which had been the home to a series of failed minor league hockey teams, was decrepit.
Snider’s initial role in the ownership group was to negotiate behind the scenes with the City of Philadelphia to cut through red tape in getting a land deal in place for the construction of a new arena. On Feb. 9, 1966, the NHL granted conditional approval of the Philadelphia bid; originally considered a dark horse compared to bids from other locales, including Baltimore.
The condition: getting the arena that came to be known as the Spectrum built in time for the 1967-68 and making good on a payment of a $2 million franchise fee; neither of which were a certainty.
Very quickly, Snider’s role grew to that of primary owner. He mortgaged his home, brought in highly respected businessman Joe Scott, worked feverishly on financing and acquired the controlling franchise rights to what became known as the Philadelphia Flyers.
Everything was on the line financially for Snider and he knew it: it was all-or-nothing risk.
“If the team didn’t make it, I was finished,” Snider recalled in 1990. “I’d have been ruined.”
The name “Flyers” was suggested by Ed Snider’s sister, Phyllis Foreman, during a dessert stop at a Howard Johnson’s on the New Jersey Turnpike on the way back from a Broadway show. The Flyers ownership partners loved it. Names previously considered included Liberty Bells, Lancers, Raiders, Royals, Knights, Sabres, Huskies, Blizzards, Icecaps, Bashers, Bruisers, and Keystones. For publicity, the team subsequently held a name-the-team contest, with the winning entry chosen among the handful who picked Flyers or Fliers as their suggested name.
The club had a name, ownership came up with the franchise fee in full and soon it had a home. The Spectrum was, almost miraculously, completed in time to open for the 1967-68 season.
Now all that remained was the “small” matter of making the Philadelphia Flyers an on-ice and financial success after every other hockey team in Philadelphia, including a short-lived NHL team called the Quakers, had failed.
In their first season of existence, the Flyers won the newly created Western Division during the regular season, defeated each of the “Original Six” teams at least once and survived the month-long closure of the Spectrum after high winds caused damage to the roof during a March 1, 1968 performance of the Ice Capades.
Although the Flyers had a degree of on-ice success in their early years, the Spectrum operated in the red. In 1972, Snider takes control of the Spectrum, using his own financing, and bought the arena out of bankruptcy.
In their seventh season, the Flyers became the first NHL expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. A ticker-tape parade with over 2 million attendees followed and then was surpassed the next year when the Flyers repeated as Stanley Cup champions and an even larger crowd came out to celebrate. In 1976, the Flyers defeated the supposedly unbeatable CSKA (Soviet Red Army) team at the Spectrum and, despite key injuries to Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent and scoring star Rick MacLeish, reached the Finals for a third straight year.
During this period, the Flyers place in the hearts of Philadelphia sports fans and the community as whole became cemented. There was no longer a question of “if hockey could make it in Philadelphia.” Rather, it became one of upholding and building upon what was becoming a tradition of excellence.
While the Flyers have not won a Stanley Cup since 1975, they enjoy the NHL’s second-highest regular season winning percentage over the last 41 years and have also taken six trips to the Stanley Cup Finals. Over the last 21 years, only the Detroit Red Wings have reached the playoffs more frequently than the Flyers (18 times).
Throughout the years, Snider frequently went above and beyond the normal owner-player relationship to help out both current and former players in need. Collectively, Flyers players of both the past and present, fundamentally appreciated Snider’s non-stop commitment to building a winning team and providing first-rate training facilities for the club.
He rewarded success and he rewarded loyalty. The Flyers players came to cherish him as much as he valued them.
In 2016, the Flyers Alumni Association, with players representing every decade of franchise history, decided to pledge a $2 million gift to the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation – Snider’s own biggest gift to underserved communities in the Delaware Valley – as a gesture of gratitude to Snider.
“Very simply, we wanted a way to say thank you to Mr. Snider for all he’s done for us, and this seemed like the most appropriate way to do it,” said Flyers Alumni Association president Brad Marsh.
Staying ahead of the curve
Whether it was with the Flyers or other areas of business, Snider was not afraid to embrace new ideas or spend money in areas he felt would be a good opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.
For example, the Flyers were the first NHL team (at the request of Shero) to hire an assistant coach. They were one of the first to embrace the use of video as a tool for coaches. They were also the first NHL team to draft a Soviet-trained player (Viktor Khatulev) and one of the first to hire a part-time scout in Europe.
In 1976, Snider launched Prism, the nation’s first 24-hour regional cable network to combine in-home sports and movies, with 20th Century Fox. The next year, he created Spectacor Management Incorporated, leveraging his experience and knowledge in sports and entertainment event management to launch a new specialist industry. Spectacor and Snider sold PRISM to the Washington Post Company and Cablevision in 1984.
Three years after the sale of Prism, Spectacor purchased WIP radio (610 AM) and created one of the nation’s first all-sports radio stations; a format that soon became widely popular around the country. He sold WIP to Infinity Broadcasting (now part of CBS) in 1993.
Ed Snider was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in its Builders category in 1988. That same year, he merged Spectacor Management with the ownership of Hyatt Corporate to create Spectacor Management Group (SMG). Aramark food services joined the SMG ownership group in 1991.
As the years progressed, sports ownership moved more and more from a model of individual ownership to a corporate model. Recognizing this, on March 19, 1996, broadcasting giant Comcast completed a megadeal to acquire and merge Ed Snider’s Spectacor into a subsidiary called Comcast Spectacor.
Comcast Spectacor took 66 percent ownership of the Flyers as well as the Philadelphia 76ers (sold in 2011), the CoreStates Center and the Spectrum. Comcast contributed $250 million in cash and stocks and assuming 66 percent of the teams’ combined $180 million debt. Snider remained on as Comcast-Spectacor chairman, managing the ownership of the Flyers.
Along with the acquisition of the sports teams, Comcast Spectacor announced a new, locally-focused 24-hour regional sports network called Comcast SportsNet. The model started in Philadelphia and later expanded nationwide.
“I think that Ed’s unique leadership abilities were really shaped by his clear vision and sense of purpose and who he was, his ability at the same time to take input and rally his team around him, and take from those who he took advice from what they had to offer,” said Phil Weinberg, Comcast-Spectactor’s vice president and general counsel.
“What was most unique about his leadership style was his ability to bring his team in and listen to what people said, take advice and process all the information that was given to him while still being the lightning rod and the driving force behind what it was that he was trying to do. Ed was a visionary no question but that was not only a gift, it was a very studied accomplishment as well. Ed knew exactly who he was and gave a great of thought to how he would get from point A to B. He was very blessed to be able to combine that study and thought with a gift that was unquestionable.”
In 1996, the facility now known as the Wells Fargo Center opened on the site of the former JFK Stadium in South Philadelphia, across from the Spectrum. Ed Snider and Comcast Spectacor closed the Spectrum on October 31, 2009.
For many years, Snider envisioned the eventual expansion of the sports complex area into somewhere people could go hours before and after games and as a dining entertainment destination in its own right. That vision became a reality in 2012 when Comcast Spectacor partnered with Cordish Companies to open XFINITY Live!.
A man of philanthropy, in touch with his roots
The tradition of people calling the Flyers’ owner “Mr. Snider” started with the players of the 1970s, and stemmed from a gesture of respect. Snider himself, however, disliked being addressed so formally.
“Call me Ed,” he said countless times, to no avail.
He also had a wry sense of humor. One year at Flyers training camp, he decried predictions that the team would miss the playoffs by saying, with his trademark intensity, “We’re not chopped liver.”
Then he paused and smiled.
“Actually, I like chopped liver,” he said.
There was much more than just the business side of his life that made up Ed Snider’s character. Those who knew him best said he was someone who never lost touch with the values his parents taught him.
“Ed was a man with incredibly deep values and sense of caring about what is right and wrong in the world. He had a very deep love for his family and his kids and for causes in which he felt strongly about. He’s been extraordinary generous in many ways because he’s had the means to be but all of that is driven by a real sense of care and concern for the world in which he lived,” Weinberg said.
The philanthropic side of Snider’s life was something he cherished but rarely discussed publically. Neither was his activism in promoting understanding between people of different cultural and religious backgrounds. He wanted his deeds to stand for themselves, because they were not done for publicity.
Following is a partial timeline of some of the ways he gave back to the community and tried to make the world a better place:
1971: He joined the boards at St. Luke’s and Children’s Medical Center and the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children.
1975: He hosted the Western Hemisphere debut of ballet duo Valery and Galina Panov at the Spectrum. All proceeds were donated to the cause of assisting Soviet Jewry.
1985: He endowed the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in honor of his father. That same year, he became the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute.
1986: He received the second annual Irvin Feld Humanitarian Award presented by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
2005: He created the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation – the only public foundation to which he lent his own name – to provide disadvantaged children from urban neighborhoods with the opportunity to learn to play ice hockey and supplementary educational services to help them succeed both scholastically and in the game of life. The same year, he received the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s William Penn Award and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor awarded to Americans of all ethnic backgrounds who have made significant contributions to society.
2015: The Philadelphia Business Journal names Ed Snider Philanthropist of the Year in recognition of the work of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. Ed Snider also receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Global Sports Summit.
Snider was also an active supporter of the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and many, many other causes that he held near and dear to his heart. He received dozens of other awards and honors as well as honorary degrees from Thomas Jefferson University and other institutions. However, his greatest joy came from watching his own children and grandchildren blossom.